Monday, 30 June 2008

o2's Market Research Data Protection Meltdown!

The story so far: My broadband supplier, o2 invited me to take part in an online market research survey. They promised not to use my email address for any other purpose.

I happily took their survey - they provide a great service but then o2 broke their promise. Since taking the survey I've been emailed by 2 more research companies.

Who else has o2 shared my personal information with?

When I first called o2 to complain that their market research company (TNS) appeared to have shared my email address with another marketing company (Valued Opinions) they denied even carrying out research, 'That's just spam' they said. Then I sent them the emails.

After investigating o2 put the survey on hold while they investigated the link between TNS and Valued Opinions. And I was happy about that.

But almost immediately after I put the phone down on my last conversation with o2's manager I received another email. This latest email invites me to take part in a focus group about my o2 mobile phone. o2 will pay me £60 to hear my feedback. Importantly the email wasn't from o2 - it was from a company called Indiefield.

When I called the person named in Indiefield's email I discovered she didn't even work for Indiefield. So I was interested in how she got my email address - especially as I had just complained to o2. In fact it turned out she hadn't sent out the invitations and she didn't know the email would give out her personal email address and phone number. All weekend she's been inundated by o2 customers hoping to claim their £60. That's not very professional is it o2?

So now o2 has shared my email address with 3 separate companies. Who else do they plan to share my details with?

I checked the privacy declaration I made when I signed up with o2 and was reassured to see that I had restricted access to my email address to o2 - for their use alone, no third parties. (o2's website also advises customers how to avoid spam by - keeping their email address private!).

I'm happy to take part in market research, after all that's how companies gain customer insight to help develop and improve their services. I took part in o2's broadband survey willingly. I was reassured that o2 wouldn't use my email address for anything else. If o2 want to ask me about my mobile phone that's fine too - but only if o2 has the courtesy to ask first. Don't just go handing out my email address o2 - if you make so freely with my personal information how can you be sure the people you give it to will won't do the same?

Today I've emailed o2's Chief Executive Matthew Key to ensure o2 is aware of its obligations both to its customers and under the Data Protection Act.

Of course I could type Mr Key's email address here in case o2 has been careless with your email address too. But I have more respect.

I'll let you know how o2 reply...

Friday, 27 June 2008

o2 go the extra mile to earn that broadband smile

o2 Broadband - They promise to make homes happy

o2 quietly launched its new home Broadband service earlier this year. Once they were happy it was as about as good as broadband could be, they rolled out a big 'Happy Homes' marketing campaign - proudly claiming that 9/10 customers would recommend o2's Broadband.

o2 must have done some research to discover this happy user number - so when they invited me to give my feedback too I readily agreed - the service is really very good - as I've said previously.

I was invited via a text, to respond to an email from market research company TNS - so I clicked through the link into a long in-depth survey about my experiences with o2's broadband.

This week I received another email, from a different marketing company referring to my positive feedback and inviting me to phone them (in return for £2) and give them my personal details (for another £5). I wasn't very happy about this at all - who else had o2 shared my email address and survey responses with? And why were they now trying to bribe me with such tiny sums of cash when I had just completed a twenty minute survey for free?

Ironically when I phone o2 broadband to complain, there's an unnecessarily lengthy security check (full name, land line number, address, dob, mothers maiden name, name of the package) all in the name of Data Protection, before I can even voice my complaint.

'Who else has o2 shared my details with? I ask

'That's just spam - nothing to do with us, we don't employ market research companies' was the opening reply from o2's customer service.

I know spam when I see it and it doesn't look like this. Don't ever fall at the first line of customer disservice. 'So it's fraud is it? A rival company mining your customers for information? How did they get your customer's email addresses? How has another marketing company heard about my positive feedback? I persevered through two levels of support until a manager came on the line. I forwarded the emails and he agreed to investigate.

My complaint went like this:
1. Did o2 commission TNS to carry out research - as the text and email invitation said.
2. Why did TNS share the result of the research with another company 'Valued Opinions'?
3. Who else has o2 shared my email address with?
4. Who is o2's appointed Data Controller - responsible for its compliance with the Data Protection Act?

Then it went a bit quiet for a couple of days - which left me far from happy. I emailed again - demanding some urgent action and reminding o2 of their responsibilities to me under the Data Protection Act. A more senior manager got involved and things began to happen, although still a little slowly - so I emailed o2's Chief Executive Matthew Key too - you can't escalate much higher than the CEO (well, there's the Chairman, the parent company Telefonica, and the Regulator, but you get my drift).

Things do go wrong in business, it's inevitable. But what marks out the truly excellent companies is the way they respond to complaints. Today o2 phoned me to thank me for persevering with my complaint. There is now a high level investigation going on into how the survey has been conducted - and while that happens the survey has been suspended with immediate effect. As a thank you for alerting them to this issue o2 would also like to offer me free broadband for the next three months. There's more - they will also keep me informed of the outcome of their investigation.

In exchange, I emphasise - in the interest of customer feedback - that if all the emails do in fact turn out to be linked to o2 - a company which spends millions promoting it's brand image each year - it shouldn't be offering derisory amounts of cash to customers via third parties to give testimonials and sell their personal data for a fiver.

My complaint has not been lost on o2, a company which - I can now testify - works very hard to keep its customers happy.

So if there's no 9/10 satisfaction statistic contained in the next o2 ad its all my fault - my complaint has temporarily shut down o2's customer survey...

...and then this evening something uncanny happens - a new email, from another market research company, again working for o2. Would I like to take part in a focus group about my o2 mobile phone? They will pay me £60 for my time. You couldn't make this stuff up could you?

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Panorama undresses Primark's ethical claims

Long checkout queues on opening day at Primark Ealing, West London

Last night BBC's Panorama successfully proved what I'm sure many of us were wondering - Can Primark really sell clothes that cheap without exploiting the Indian textile workers?

The answer was a resounding no. Primark said the garments Panorama found being sewn by Indian Children as young as 11 were a breach of the suppliers' contracts - which state that all work must be done in factories. Child labour isn't permitted either. Primark has now cancelled all orders from those suppliers who made the garments which Panorama found being sewn in squalid refugee villages on wages as low as 50p a day.

Primark as a retailing phenomenon largely passed me by, until they opened in Ealing at the beginning of this month. After months of refurbishment Primark transformed the tired old Bentalls, more recently Beales, department store into a shining open plan palace packed with the cheapest clothes I have ever seen. Women were exiting the store, pushchairs piled high, infants buried beneath mountains of brown paper bags bearing the Primark logo. I wouldn't be writing a blog about my Adventures in Consumerland unless I was interested in shopping, so I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Cotton cushions sell for just £3 at Primark

I really was shocked by the prices on the clothes and household linens. I'd heard Primark was cheap, and I've seen how little Tesco sell T shirts for - but Primark prices represent a new low. Cotton cushions for £3, T shirts for £1.50. These items attract VAT at 17.5% so that's £2.58 and £1.29 respectively before the government tax. It's easy to see why people leave with bagfuls of the stuff - who cares if it doesn't last long - buy 2, in fact why not buy one in each colour while you're at it?Customers are still queuing at Primark Ealing - the day after the BBC's expose

Over 4m viewers watched the hour long Panorama investigation shown on BBC One last night. It was the highest audience for the current affairs series this year. But sadly Primark Ealing was busy as usual today. Viewers are shocked, but shoppers can't get enough.

Panorama proved Primark's ethical fashion claims aren't based in fact, but fantasy.
Clothes can't really be this cheap.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Mouldy Old Dough

Sainsbury's Taste The Difference Loaf - Nice if you like green fur on your toast

Late on Friday evening, after driving from London to Norwich, we went to Sainsbury's to buy the weekend groceries. The Friday rush-hour traffic was terrible, so my shopping radar was impaired - well that's my excuse for picking up a loaf without checking the 'best before' tag.

Saturday morning dawned and my partner announced the bread was no good - it had gone mouldy. Food doesn't last like it should, but this bread was suspiciously furry. Inspecting the tag for the first time I noticed that it was 'best before' an entire day before we actually bought it. Sainsbury's had sold us an out of date loaf - no wonder mould was growing on it.

The loaf cost £1.10. Should we throw it away or take it back? Regular readers will guess which option I favoured. But this presented a problem, we were miles from Sainsbury's and not planning another visit any time soon. I placed the loaf in a bag with the receipt and got on with enjoying the weekend sunshine.

Sunday evening when we were packing up The Chief Executive's partner suggested 'taking it on the chin' and putting the mouldy loaf in the bin. The Chief Executive had other ideas.

Arriving back in Norwich we passed the Sainsbury's filling station adjacent to the store - by now closed. My partner, it should be noted, has developed an uncanny mind-reading ability when it comes to my Adventures in Consumerland.
"You're not taking that bread back are you?" she announced in a dismayed voice.

With £40 worth of Sainsbury's petrol in the tank I didn't imagine a tussle over £1.10. I was wrong. The lad at the till said 'You'll have to take that back to the store". I explained I couldn't, I was heading to London, so he had a simple choice - refund the £1.10 or "I'll report Sainsbury's to Trading Standards for selling food unfit for human consumption". The friendly manager was summoned and £1.10 conjured up from the till. Honour satisfied.

Chief Executive Mouldy Old Food Quiz
So which of these shoppers is you?
a) I'd take a mouldy loaf back sold after its 'best by' date which cost £1.10.
b) I'd take back a free range chicken sold after its use by date which cost £10.10.
c) I'd take back a food hamper sold after its 'best by' date which cost £110.00

I like to think we'd all do (c) I hope we'd all do (b) too - because public food safety is at issue - if a store is selling out of date chicken the manager needs to know.
But would you do (a)?

Friday, 20 June 2008

Abbey Coughs Up!

There's a surprise in the mail this morning. After just 5 working days, a crisp cheque for £50 from Abbey arrives - to compensate ("We don't compensate customers for their time") for the mess they made of opening my ISA ("You'll never see that cheque" was my partner's response).

Tip to all: don't take the runaround from banks. They're quick to impose charges when we screw up our finances. Demanding money back when they screw up is the only language they understand.

The End of High Street Travel Agents

Thomas Cook - time for a geography lesson

I'm planning a trip to California at the moment. I've been trawling the web for inspiration but I've also been reading a Trailfinders brochure - turning glossy pages is a welcome break to scrolling web pages - and its much more portable too. The first transatlantic flight I ever brought was from Trailfinders - Air New Zealand, Heathrow to LA. That was nearly 20 years ago, but their knowledgeable and competitive service has left a lasting impression with me and I trust their research. Last year I used Trailfinders accommodation recommendations in South Africa and they were all good.

I've never brought anything from Thomas Cook and I probably never will judging from today's experience. Passing a very down at heel branch in West London this morning I popped in to see what other brochures I could pick up. As I surveyed the tatty racks, largely bereft of any brochures, a scruffy young girl approached me to ask if I needed any help. She conveyed all the enthusiam of someone who has been instructed to do this during training: 'Turn browsers into buyers Shirley'.

'I'm looking for flydrive California brochures' I told her. She turned to her supervisor, sat at one of the deserted desks, 'California?' she faintly echoed. 'There might be a Thomas Cook Signature brochure out the back' offered the supervisor. 'That would be great' I encouraged.

With nothing else to distract me - such as an offer to discuss my travel plans in more detail - I looked around. Sales posters and signs covered all the walls in the dimly lit branch. At the currency exchange desk a peeling newspaper cutting warned of 'bank currency rip-offs'. After what seemed an age the first girl emerged offering a single slim brochure with a large, single word title emblazoned across the front cover 'Florida'.

'Florida' isn't quite California is it?' I pointed out (do you think they give Italy brochures to customers who enquire about France?). The supervisor piped up 'There might be a small bit about California in there'. Perhaps there are also small bits about Nevada, Arizona and New York, maybe even the Galapagos I thought, but the title is a giveaway.

Long before this exchange I realised I'd made a big mistake stepping into Thomas Cook. The great pioneer of mass travel would despair at the brand which has taken his name. Asked to point to either California or Florida on a map I doubt either of these two could.

'Come back next Tuesday...We could search availability...' their voices faded into the distance as I made my excuses 'I don't think so' and headed for the exit. As I walked away I remembered this was also the branch where I once asked about Gran Canaria and they showed me a print out of availability for Playa Las Americas - which I pointed out was in Tenerife.

We've heard high street travel agents are being read the last rites - if this is the service they offer, then no wonder.

Thomas Cook I suggest you shut the doors and save the rent.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Abbey's 50 day delay

A Long wait for the Abbey's confirmation

Finally, after a delay of 50 working days, Abbey has managed to post me a letter confirming that the ISA I applied for on 9th April has been opened. In fact its been open since 21st April.

So when senior Customer Resolutions Manager Rachel Dimond phoned me on Friday and asked if I was satisfied with the way my complaint had been resolved I answered with a resounding 'no'. In fact I went further - I asked her to compensate me for the numerous phone calls I had made trying to establish what had gone wrong.

'We don't compensate customers for their time' she responded. 'I'm not talking about time, I'm talking about trust and inconvenience' I replied. We agreed that £50 would be fair. That was the moment I chose to tell her that I had also written to the Chairman of Abbey's owner Banco Santander to complain. 'You'll never see that cheque' was my partner's response when I told her. So far she's right - I haven't seen that cheque. I wonder how many 'working days' it might take...

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Pumped up demands

I filled up this week (but not at my local Shell which has hiked its price for a litre of unleaded to a record-breaking 121.9, 133.9 for Diesel). The tanks were running dry at Shell, Osterley, West London as the photo shows.

This weekend Shell's striking tanker drivers threatened to bring the country to a halt as fuel supplies ran out. It's ironic, a week earlier an email had been doing the rounds suggesting a boycott of one of the national petrol chains - working on the assumption that if say BP had no customers it would have to cut prices to get motorists back onto its forecourts. Ironic, because as soon as there was even a possibility Shell would have no fuel everyone rushed to fill up. It would be amazing if co-ordinated people power could produce a boycott on that scale. I can't recall anything like it happening before.

Today the striking tanker drivers won their dispute - achieving a staggering 14% pay rise - 9% this year, 5% next.

Should UK drivers boycott Shell for a week?
No sales = No deliveries = No wages.

Meanwhile The Government urges wages restraint - yesterday came the worst inflation figures for a decade. When asked about the tanker drivers' settlement Business Secretary John Hutton said the deal was 'a reflection of conditions particular to their industry'.

Yesterday inflation warnings were on amber - now they're on red alert. More pay for the tanker delivery drivers = higher prices at the pumps. Next we all demand more pay from our bosses so we can afford to fill up our cars. So how is the tankers drivers' pay award 'particular to their industry' Mr Hutton?

Perhaps we should try that Shell forecourt boycott?

Social networking sites "Twitter" a trend too far?

Linkedin - the business contacts version of Facebook - has just joined the Billionaires club. Facebook, Myspace, Bebo and now Linkedin, have all made their creators wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

No doubt this is the aspiration behind social networking site Twitter. You can see how it works from this short explanatory video.

So Twitter, according to the cheesy voice-over, offers a chance to share with others the bits of the 'real world' which happen between emails, phone calls and blog posts. "You wouldn't send an email to say you're having coffee - your friend doesn't need to know that" - but these short updates of just 140 characters, on a web-page personal to you allow you to share your life with the people who care.

"Carla was sceptical, but she found Twitter looks a little like blogs and within hours she saw a different side of people's lives. It was the 'real world'. Soon she was posting too - and her friends could see she had recently discovered a passion for Van Halen."

And so gushes Mr. Cheese, as he narrates the clever animated demo for the Twitter site. (Van Halen already have a lot to answer for, this may be a crime too far).

Meanwhile on Twitter more 'real world'...

"Ping! Did you hear that? My kettle has just boiled - I'm having some Chamomile tea!"
"Wow, Chief Executive - I didn't know you liked Chamomile tea too!"

The word twitter comes from birds - whose sound is a constant chirruping of meaningless, but endearing nothingness. It's been applied to gossips too - often women, who produce a similar constant babble which benefits no one (oh do stop your twittering).

Sorry, another 'real world' interruption....

'That's my letterbox clanking open - look some more junk mail has arrived! Isn't my 'real world' interesting!'

'Ker-Ching! Needless networking - is that the sound of my first million? Hooray! I'll never have to work again...

Shouldn't we all spend a little more time interacting with the 'real world' all around us? The more connected we become, the more disconnected our lives are.

Could I really be running down the new 'telephone' - it's amazing to think its inventors didn't know what that would be used for... no, I don't think so either.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Complain to Spain

The story so far: Regular readers will know that I have been having some bother with my bank. Abbey recently came bottom in the BBC Watchdog programme's customer survey of UK banks. Abbey's response was dismissive to put it mildly. I wrote to the Chief Executive to complain their high handed approach would damage my investment in the business - and took the opportunity to complain about my branch.

Senior Customer Resolutions Manager Rachel Dimond wrote back and since then I have made sure she knows about all the problems I encounter at Abbey - like when they shut the branch because the key holder doesn't turn up for work (read the post here).

Currently top of my list of complaints is Abbey's Cash ISA. In April they advertised a new Direct ISA issue 2 - paying a market leading 6.25%. I had the old Issue 1 paying 5.75% so on 9th April I phoned to switch. I was told it would take 7-10 working days.

45 working days later - yes two months - I am still waiting for written confirmation the account has been switched, so I don't know what rate of interest my savings are earning. I still have the same account number and this concerns me. A month ago I asked Ms Dimond to investigate. Three weeks ago she told me there was a backlog of 700 ISA's waiting to be processed. If I didn't hear anything in 7 - 14 days I should get back in touch.

Generously I gave Abbey a whole 15 working days - including an allowance for the recent bank holiday before phoning Ms Dimond again today. She is surprised I haven't heard anything, and promises to chase it up. I'm infuriated by her dismissive attitude - she is a Senior Customer Resolutions manager - isn't her job to resolve problems? 'I resolve lots of complaints every day' she responds. 'Which Board director can I write to about this?' I ask. It doesn't matter who you write to, your letter will be forwarded to me. I deal with all executive correspondence'. I ask her if Abbey subscribes to the Banking Code - it does, and whether she considers a delay of 45 working days acceptable - she doesn't. She promises to phone me back...

Today's mail brought notice of Banco Santander's Annual General Shareholder's meeting. Its to be held in Spain later this month. Santander own Abbey. The letter is signed by Santander's chairman Emilio Botin. He is one of the world's most successful bankers - and richest men. He took the bank over from his father, and his talented daughter looks likely to succeed him.

So Ms Dimond says any complaint I make to Abbey will simply end up on her desk. Certainly my letter to the UK Chief Executive did. So I get to thinking - what happens if I email my complaint to Santander'
s Chairman? This is a challenge too good to pass up. Usually I'm expert at working out email addresses but Senor Botin presents a problem. Visiting Santander's corporate website I discover his full name is:

Mr. Emilio Botín-Sanz de Sautuola y García de los Ríos

This presents a bewildering number of email address options. The email style appears to be, so I try ebotin@gruposantander but it bounces straight back. Eventually I fill out the contact us form - which has a pull down menu to mark for the 'attention of the Board'.

An email pops back confirming receipt.

I'll let you know if one of the world's most successful bankers cares more about his customers than Abbey does.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Cheap MOT Test Dilemma

My VW Golf up on the ramp during the MOT inspection

The annual MOT test for my VW seems to come round quicker than Christmas. I've been taking my car, and the one before it, to the same testing station for years - at least ten. The first time I went they were doing a deal and as they seemed to sell cheap used cars rather than repair them I figured they wouldn't try and hit me with a big repair bill instead of simply passing the car (if it was OK).We've all heard the horror stories of unnecessary repairs to pass an MOT.

This year, when I phoned to book, my local wasn't offering any MOT discounts - judging by the current stock these are sticky times in the second hand motor trade and as you'll see from the photo this isn't a high end place. So the MOT would cost £50 (the full official fee is £50.35)

The absence of discount left me with a dilemma - should I try somewhere new? Nationwide Autocentres are offering 33% discount - an MOT for £33.77

When I googled for feedback on this chain I was disappointed to discover high levels of disgruntled user feedback. Now of course interweb reviewers are self-selecting and much more likely to report negative than positive experiences. But the number of customers reporting problems - like hefty repair quotes to pass - was too great for a £16 saving.

So next I go into my annual ritual of preparing the car for its MOT. It's regularly serviced and maintained but - a bit like a trip to the dentist - I fear something unexpected will crop up. So I wash and polish the car and vacuum inside. I check the wipers and the tyres. The rear wiper is split, so I decide to do something I've never done before and buy a cheap replacement from the £1 shop - after all its only the rubber bit I need. The saving is enormously disproportionate to the amount of satisfaction I feel after sabotaging the rubber blade and fixing it to the old wiper arm. The car gleams as I drive it to the testing station. 45 minutes later and I have the certificate.

The tester tells me he's having some bathroom tiles fitted at home today. 'Guess how much the tiler charges? Sixty quid an hour! Can you believe it - that's two grand a week! Course he's not charging me that, cos I walk his dog when he's away.'

As I hand over my £50 for the 45 minute MOT I don't like to point out it works out to an hourly rate of £67 - after all he's not the guvnor - and the ramps and testing equipment are more costly to run than a diamond wheel tile cutter.

Incidentally, while writing this post I found this website with great advice to help you pass the MOT - without having to wash and vacuum the car! But checking the wipers and tyres is however top of the list. There's also a helpful pie-chart showing what most MOT failures are due to (lighting and signalling 23% and brakes 23%, suspension 18%). Please note, none of these potential failures are prevented by polishing or vacuuming...

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Divine Fairtrade Chocolate

I like chocolate and I love a deal. My friend Katie knows both of these things and because she's a friend she phoned to brag about a deal she had spotted at Tesco.

Lindt 70% dark chocolate is my favourite, at Tesco 100g costs £1.29. Displayed right next to it is a bar called 'Divine'. The price on the shelf is 54p but in fact when scanned at the checkout it sold at 51p.

Divine is different from Lindt. It's a Fairtrade bar. The Fairtrade cocoa beans are from Ghana and the farmers own part of the company .

So Tesco sell Divine for 51p. Sainsbury's and Waitrose also sell this ethical Divine chocolate - but for 79p. That's 65% more expensive.

So who's profiting? The cocoa farmers are getting a guaranteed Fairtrade price of $1600 per tonne for the cocoa, then there are shipping, manufacturing, wholesale, marketing, transport costs and VAT at the shop.

I wonder what the supermarkets pay for a 100g bar? Tesco can't be selling for a loss at 51p and I really hope Sainsbury's and Waitrose aren't pocketing the extra from the 79p they charge. Perhaps they pay more for the bars (The Ghanaian farmers own part of the company too remember).
The Taste Test
OK, so its Fairtrade and its good value - but I hear you ask - does Divine taste any good? Well Katie and I like blind tasting, so independently we can report a unanimous yes. Against Green & Blacks organic dark I would say the difference is indistinguishable. For me Lindt is still favourite (more bitter and more vanilla taste) but as I can buy two and a half times as much Divine for the same price as Lindt and it tastes just as good as G&B, Divine gets my vote.

Oh, and I can feel a warm glow while I'm eating the chocolate because I'll be helping those Ghanaian farmers.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Should British Airways keep the tax if you don't fly?

BA's Terminal 5
Last Tuesday British Airways increased its fuel surcharge for the second time in as many months. Today I'm looking at UK domestic flights from London Heathrow to Glasgow. Last week the cheapest option on BA's website was £92 return - booking at least a couple of weeks ahead.
Today BA's cheapest all inclusive Glasgow return fare available is £117.40. The fare is just £42 but the taxes, fees and charges add almost twice as much again £75.40.

Michael O'Leary at Ryanair has turned hidden air fare charges into an art form - with additional charges for almost everything any air passenger might expect - you pay extra to check in at the airport, check a bag into the hold - there's even an extra charge when you come to pay for the ticket (unless you are one of the very few people using an 'Electron' card - which is the loophole Ryanair use to make this final 'extra' legal).

We've come to expect such artful deception from Ryanair. BA is at least up-front about the additional charges and includes them in the first web price you see. The problem comes if you book - but then can't or don't fly. Shouldn't you get some of the charges back - should you pay the government imposed air passenger duty (£20) if you don't actually fly? The government doesn't get it, the airline pockets it. Should you pay extra for the high price of fuel (£32) if you're not actually on board? If the seat stays empty perhaps you should, but the chances are it will have been sold several times over (airlines are masterful at predicting how many 'no-shows' there'll be).

You can apply online to BA for a refund of taxes - even if your ticket is sold as 'fully non-refundable' but the airline charges a £30 administration fee to refund the government tax (£20) so you won't receive a penny.

Is £30 a fair and reasonable admin fee for an online transaction? I don't think so. Banks and credit cards have had their excessive fees curtailed. If the government doesn't expect to get the tax if you don't fly then neither should British Airways.

Note: After reading this my partner agreed airlines shouldn't pocket the govt tax - but wondered how much sympathy she should have for people who lose money because they don't turn up for their flights. Well, lets see, you might be sick, or desperately needed elsewhere. If you miss your flight - the car breaks down, the train is late - unless you have a fully flexible ticket you'll have to pay all over again. If you can't take the outbound flight but want to use the return leg , you'll discover you can't - the whole ticket is cancelled - and they keep the tax! I think sympathy is in order.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Could BBC One streaming kill the internet in the UK?

'Slow road ahead on the information superhighway'

The story so far: Yesterday I wondered whether the BBC was making a tactical error by deciding to stream its most popular TV channel over the web. I feared that it might hasten the end of the TV licence fee and hence force a major rethink of the BBC's funding - even before the current charter expires in 2016.

A lot more stuff has been written elsewhere since my post yesterday. My headline is borrowed from the excellent broadband issues website and user forum They raise some more immediate concerns which escaped my attention.

If the nation's favourite TV shows are available live over the web other services may grind to a halt.

We've all experienced how slow the web can get during peak hours, so if millions of viewers decide to stream a popular show onto their PCs what will happen to all the other services? Will Internet service providers have to put up a 'sorry service full to capacity' sign?

Some Internet service providers have already complained that the BBC's iPlayer has grown demand for capacity exponentially - who is going to pay for the extra pipe-work they ask? Will it be the BBC (who pay for their transmitters now) BT (who own and operate most of the UK's telephony infrastructure) or Customers - yes, us!

Broadband has become exceptionally good value - Sky offer a basic service free to its TV subscribers, Talk Talk and Tiscali give it away with telephone packages, O2's standalone service is just £7.50 a month for its mobile customers.

The future demands on the internet's infrastructure capacity are growing daily - but who will make the massive technological investment to ensure the UK isn't left in the information superhighway's slow lane?

Thursday, 5 June 2008

The end of the TV licence fee?

The BBC is to start streaming it's most viewed TV channel - BBC One - on the web. The BBC's on demand catchup service - The iPlayer - has enjoyed enormous success, but programmes can only be viewed streamed or downloaded after they have been shown live - so you don't need a TV licence to use the iPlayer.

To watch any live TV in the UK requires a TV Licence - which currently costs £139.50 a year. A licence is required if you own any TV, set top box or video/ DVD/ or hard drive recorder with a tuner which can receive TV signals. You also need a TV licence to watch live TV on a computer.

But now we can watch BBC One live on the web will every laptop owner also require a TV licence? According to TV licensing - yes. Watching live TV - however you do it, requires a licence. The Licence rules do have some exclusions - but viewing on a computer screen isn't one of them. TVs used in mobile homes and caravans (which are covered by the home licence) and TVs which work solely powered by their own internal battery are the only exemptions (The over 75's get a free licence for their main home and the blind get a 50% reduction).

So what future for the TV licence? The current BBC charter - and hence its funding - is guaranteed until 2016. But 4 years earlier - 2012 is the date when the last analogue TV transmitters will be switched off and viewers will need a TV or set top box with a digital decoder (such as Freeview or a Sky box). By then, if trends continue, a significant proportion of TV viewers will be watching on computer screens.

Policing the licence fee - whether 'its all in the database' or not will soon be impossible. How will the nation's favourite broadcaster be funded in the future? It may be the end for the licence fee - but not the BBC, surely? The Beebs rush to streaming TV on the web may be a mistake...

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Petrol Prices - again

2 months ago (26th March) I posted a photo of my local Shell garage. They had just installed a new sign - with extra space for the ever lengthening prices. The picture showed the price of a litre of unleaded as 108.9 and Diesel as 115.9.

Just 2 months on and unleaded has increased another 10p a litre.

The price leap for diesel is even greater - 15p a litre.

Last week world oil prices peaked at $135 a barrel. So now filling my tank with 45 litres of unleaded costs an extra £4.50 - almost a 10% rise on the March price. Before tax is added the UK has the cheapest diesel in Europe, after tax is added it is the most expensive (the shortage of capacity in European production apparently explains the inequality between the price of diesel and unleaded).

I read in the paper today that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling arrived at the recent emergency oil summit in a Jaguar and a Range Rover - vehicles which probably struggle to achieve 10 miles a gallon on a good day. Apparently MPs have asked for an increase in their travel allowances to cover the new petrol price hike. Well why not - after all last year Prime Minister Gordon Brown charged taxpayers for light bulbs at his home and Deputy PM John Prescott claimed some of his food bill. While the rest of us make cuts to other areas of our spending why not insulate our legislators from the fuel pain too?

The Inland Revenue allows the self-employed to claim 40p a mile in lieu of calculating the full cost of running a car for their business. I'm sure the Revenue will feel our pain when we all start making the full running cost calculation for this tax year.

We can moan all we like, but we have to change our behaviour. Fuel isn't going to get any cheaper.